Alison Krupnick is a former world-traveling diplomat, turned minivan-driving mom and writer. As a Foreign Service officer with the State Department (March 1986-September 1995), she served in India, Thailand and Vietnam and in Washington, D.C. on the country desks for Egypt, Sri Lanka and the Republic of Maldives. Her writing has been published in Harvard Review, Brain, Child, the magazine for thinking mothers, Seattle magazine, Crosscut and other news and trade publications, literary journals and anthologies. She is the author of the blog Slice of Mid-Life (http://www.sliceofmidlife.com). Alison lives in Seattle with her husband and two daughters. She is also the author of a newly released book, Ruminations from the Minivan: musings from a world grown large, then small.
Below is an excerpt from the book (republished with permission). This story, Benefit of the Doubt was originally published in the Harvard Review.
I am standing in the lobby of the former Majestic Hotel trying to make a break for it. At the hotel entrance, a throng of fans is waiting for my companions and me. They’ve been waiting there all day, ever since they broke away from the roped off area at the airport and began to chase us. Chase us on foot, chase us by bicycle, chase us on mopeds. They chased us as we left the decrepit airport and drove into town. They chased us as we passed billboards for state-run enterprises and posters with Soviet-style artwork celebrating the workers’ struggle that look out of place in this tropical environment. They chased us as we attempted to enter the hotel. They chased us and they called out to us by name and tapped us on the shoulders, trying to hand us scraps of paper with names and numbers written on them. Now, hours after our arrival, we want to go to dinner. But if we leave by the front door we will be mobbed. We are ushered out of the hotel via the service entrance and manage to slip away to Maxim’s, a nearby restaurant. We are given a private room. We enjoy a dinner of crab farci, while musicians serenade us with traditional songs of old Vietnam. Then I have a moment to digest what has happened. This is the closest I’ll ever come to knowing how it feels to be a rock star, I think. Nobody has ever wanted me so much in my entire life.
It’s December 1988. Twenty-seven years old, fresh from a year of intensive Vietnamese language training, I have arrived in the former South Vietnamese capital of Saigon, renamed Hồ Chí Minh City by the post-war Communist Vietnamese government. I am part of a team of U.S. government officials. Our mission is to interview and decide whether to grant visas to Amerasians (the wartime offspring of Vietnamese women and American men); former prisoners of Communist “re-education camps;” and beneficiaries of immigrant visa petitions filed by family members already in the United States. We do so as part of the Orderly Departure Program (ODP), which was created under an international agreement to stop the dangerous flow of “boat people,” who had been risking their lives to flee Vietnam. The United States has had no diplomatic relations with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam since 1975, no Embassy where Vietnamese people can simply apply for a visa. The ODP makes it possible for qualified applicants to meet face-to-face with a U.S. government official in Vietnam. The alternative is to take their chances with escape, which, even if successful, could leave them languishing for years in one of the many overcrowded refugee camps of Southeast Asia.
For nearly four years, I will participate almost every month in these ten-day interview trips, which are physically exhausting and emotionally draining. Despite my extensive training and the fact that I have experience conducting visa interviews in India, the stakes are higher in Vietnam. As I find myself in the uncomfortable position of making decisions that will literally change another person’s life, the responsibility to do the right thing, sometimes with very little to guide me, is daunting. Ultimately the guilt that I have not done enough, that nobody can ever do enough, that we are being asked to do too much, will take its toll on me.
Click here to read more about the Orderly Departure Program from Vietnam which was established in 1979-1994 to provide a safe and legal means for people to leave Vietnam rather than clandestinely by boat.
We asked Alison to sum up what it was like being female and single in the FS during the time she was in and below is her response:
“I felt that there was a double-standard for single female FSOs during my era, especially in the developing world. Several of my male peers dated and eventually married local women, but dating locals was frowned upon for female FSOs and I felt our behavior was more scrutinized. The opening chapter in the book (Junior Officer) touches on this.”
Why she left the Foreign Service in 1995?
I left the Foreign Service to marry an American traveler I met in Vietnam 1991. After we each returned to the U.S. in 1992 (him to Seattle, me to D.C.) we had a three-year, pre-Internet long distance relationship. This was at the time that Sleepless in Seattle had come out and I think I saw that film at least twice on trans-continental flights. He was reluctant to follow me into the Foreign Service, so I tried some creative solutions so we could be together (including creating a Pearson appt. in Seattle, which the Department assigned to someone else). Finally, since we had never spent more than two weeks in the same place, an understanding boss gave me a few months of LWOP, just prior to my having to bid on my next overseas assignment. Summer is deceptively dry and beautiful in Seattle. The weather and my boyfriend convinced me that Seattle should be my next “assignment.”
We also wanted to know what made her write this book. If this book is mostly about her experience during her FS years or is this more about her transition back to life outside the FS/the beltway. Here is what she said:
My experience in the Foreign Service was life-changing and continues to influence me. The book is divided into four parts. The first part deals with my Foreign Service life and pre-Foreign Service international awakening. I was living in Paris in 1979-1980, a pivotal year when the U.S. hostages were taken in Iran and the U.S. boycotted the Summer Olympics in Moscow. I decided to study international relations at Monterey Institute of International Studies, and later join the State Department, to make sense of situations such as these and because of my exposure in Paris to a wide range of nationalities and their impressions of Americans and of U.S. foreign policy.
Other sections of the book are about post-Beltway life. I often joke that being in the Foreign Service is like being in a leper colony and it can be challenging to transition out of the fold. Few outside of the community understand the unique facets of this life, or fully appreciate the role FSOs play in promoting international understanding. During my early years with kids I didn’t travel internationally, was acutely frustrated by this and missed being a player on the world stage.
I eventually figured out that just because your world shrinks, your world view doesn’t have to. The Internet and the massive changes in information technology have made it much easier to stay informed and connected from almost anywhere.
If you’re in the DC area, you’ll get a chance to see Alison when she visits to promote her book sometime this year. The book is available at amazon.com here. The Kindle edition should be available in the next few weeks.